March 2011

The Fighter

By: Meridith May
photos by Ryan Lely


Isabella Zwack travels the world to promote Zwack, an herbal liqueur that fought the odds,
originally created for Hungarian royalty in 1790 by Josef Zwack.

Zwack has pedigree. For an herbal liqueur to continue carry a family name, to survive over 200 years amid wars, hostile government intervention and communist control and to resurface in the 21st century in the U.S, is quite a feat.

Born and raised in Florence, Italy, the statuesque and worldly Isabella Zwack met with us in San Francisco to share the story—and a few savory sips—of Zwack.

Escape from Hungary

Josef Zwack was an 18th century physician to the Imperial Court of Hungary, for whom, in 1790, he created a delicate herbal "remedy" concocted from 40 herbs and spices. From 1840 to 1944, the secreted recipe was enjoyed by an entire nation, and Zwack was elevated to become Hungary's most cherished spirit.

During World War II, after the Germans invaded Budapest, privately-owned businesses throughout Hungary were destroyed and families were sent to work camps, or worse, killed. Later, "the communist Hungarian government claimed the keys to the factory," explains Isabella Zwack. "They also demanded the recipe."

While her father, Peter Zwack, escaped in 1944, temporarily heading to Ellis Island, her uncle Bela stayed behind to hand over the "secret formula" for Zwack to the communists. He gave them a fake.

Zwack is Back

Peter Zwack moved his family to Italy, where they started producing the family spirit once again. "We were rootless, living in Italy. All we had was our family business," declares Isabella, speaking of her Hungarian father and English mother.

In 1988, a year before the Iron Curtain fell, Isabella's father discovered that the Hungarian state was about to privatize the factory.

"We bought it back," she said proudly. The next year, Zwack was back in their homeland, "in the same bottle design from 220 years ago." The business became the first privately-held company in post-communist Hungary. In 1990, then-President George Bush named Peter Zwack U.S. Ambassador to Hungary.

Although sold under the name Zwack Unicum in Budapest, Zwack, in its original formula, continues to be the National Shot of Hungary, and the oldest in the world. "There's no family name associated with [the leading brand of] herbal liqueur," she intimates.

Zwack is imported by Diageo North America.

Sealed with a Zwack

The Lucky Hungarian is a signature cocktail at Waterbar in San Francisco. The drink combines equal parts of Zwack, Baileys and Bushmills.
Zwack is a mixable liqueur with a unique taste. The 220-year-old recipe, which remains a secret today, is a blend of 40 herbs and spices gathered from all over the world. Some of the herbs and spices are distilled, others are macerated; the components are blended and then aged in Hungarian oak for more than six months.

The nose of this deep amber spirit immediately denotes sarsaparilla and cinnamon, with a hint of orange rind and clove, rhubarb, honey and quinine. On the palate, milk chocolate is calmed by a stoic minerality. Heather and orange peel linger through a long, meditative finish.

The Zwackhattan

1 part Crown Royal Canadian whisky
1 part Zwack herbal liqueur
1 part vermouth

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